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John Altenburg barely had time to get used to private law practice when the government conscripted him for a second tour of duty last year. In December Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that Altenburg would oversee the military tribunals of the alleged terrorists now housed at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Altenburg, 59, comes well prepared for the post. He spent 28 years as an assistant judge advocate for the U.S. Army, including stints in the Persian Gulf, Haiti, and Kosovo. In late 2002 he left the Army to join the D.C. office of Greenberg Traurig as a government contracts partner. Now Altenburg is working for Uncle Sam again, with the official title of appointing authority for the military commissions. Not only will he decide what charges will be sent to trial and which cases are capital ones, he will also appoint military commission members and approve plea agreements. His most immediate challenge: convincing civil libertarians and the world that the tribunals can be open and fair. Altenburg recently spoke with reporter Vivia Chen of The American Lawyer, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel. Q: How did you get picked for this job? A: Volunteering [for the job] was the one thing I did not do. I received a call one day from DOD [the U.S. Department of Defense], and I was told that the general counsel [William Haynes] wanted to see me. They asked me [in mid-November] if I would consider being the appointing authority, and I said that I would. Q: Why do you think you were picked for the job? A: I have extensive criminal law background as a defense lawyer and prosecutor. I was also a supervisor of [the Army's judicial] process; I was the lawyer for general court-martial convening authorities, which means advising on prosecutions for all the jurisdictions. Q: Did anyone counsel you against taking the job? A: My wife’s reaction was, “You gave the country 30 years of your life. Why do you have to do this now?” The only way I can answer that is that it’s my duty to take the job, because I am capable and qualified to do it, and there’s not a phalanx of people similarly qualified. She understands my reasons, though she’s not entirely happy. Q: Would you have that same sense of duty if you were offered the less popular role of lead defense lawyer for the alleged terrorists? A: I think so. All these jobs are critical for the process. Military culture has evolved. Military defense lawyers are essentially public defenders. Their sole allegiance is to their client. More than 30 years ago, some officers didn’t understand that, and felt that a judge advocate shouldn’t be that aggressive in representing clients. But that’s long gone. Q: What safeguards do the Guant�namo prisoners have at trial? A: There’s presumption of innocence. There’s right to remain silent. The standard of proof for the government is that it must establish proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Those are very important standards that should address people’s concern about fairness. Q: What can you do to assure the American public and world that this won’t be a rigged justice system? A: The way for people to understand that this is an open and fair system is just for them to see it in operation. Much of the criticism will fall off once the process begins. Q: What makes you so optimistic that you can insist on an open process when the government has been so secretive about the proceedings so far? A: I insisted [before taking the job] that I be completely independent, and I was told that I would be. Q: Is there a deadline when all 600-plus prisoners will be tried? A: No. Right now the process is that there be a recommendation to the president that a prisoner goes to trial, then the president has to decide. Q: How long is your commitment? A: Well, it’s undetermined. We don’t know how long the trials will take. At this point, I’m willing to have an open-ended commitment.

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